Monday, March 26, 2018

Guest Who: "Barney" & Friends

I've alluded to the fact that, as a child, I was only drawn to TV series that afforded some degree of glamour or elegance. Think the soft-focus, piled-high ladies of Star Trek, the austere charisma of Mission: Impossible, the dazzling jiggle of Charlie's Angels or the faux-ritziness of The Love Boat and Fantasy Island as a few examples. I even liked my westerns that way, hence my love of The Big Valley with Linda Evans' tresses and Barbara Stanwyck's false eyelashes.

The very idea of tuning in to something compar- atively gritty looking like Sanford & Son, Taxi or M*A*S*H was complete anathema to me. (I still have never seen a full episode of M*A*S*H. If the theme song begins, I scramble across the room like a howler monkey to find the remote and change the channel...) Thus, Barney Miller, a grimy sitcom set in a run-down police station was never going to be viewed by me during its initial run.

However, after years of hearing about the husky charms of Max Gail, a supporting player on the show, and stumbling upon season one on DVD for the grand sum of $1.00 (!), I picked up the show and wended my way with trepidation through the first, abbreviated 13-episode season. I had to admit that, though this first year had a few bumps in it, for the most part it was a smart, amusing, captivating series of episodes made even more entertaining by some of the unexpected guest stars who paraded across the screen.

The concept for the show was initially to include contrast between police captain and title character Hal Linden's life at the colorful, at time dangerous, police station and his home life, in which a wife and two children awaited his presence while balancing their own issues. A filmed pilot in 1974 introduced Linden, his wife Abby Dalton, their two children and an uncle while the station had a variety of officers who were mostly never seen again besides Abe Vigoda's aging detective Fish.

Once the show had been picked up in 1975, a new pilot/kick-off episode was shot on videotape with Barbara Barrie taking Abby Dalton's place and the uncle kicked to the curb entirely. (Dalton would later secure a featured role on the hit prime-time soap Falcon Crest.) A new gang of cops were also added to the police station along with Vigoda. Even this reworked pilot put forth a concept that would very quickly change - and permanently.

While the policemen generally stayed the same (senior Vigoda, street-smart Gregory Sierra, snappy, snazzy Ron Glass, dunder- headed Max Gail and dryly unfazed Jack Soo) except for the occasional addition or departure, second-billed Barrie would soon be reduced to mostly walk-ons at the police station and in time eradicated almost entirely. The son was never seen again and the daughter only barely.

The producers determined that the show worked best on the police station set, so virtually all the shows were set and taped there with only the most occasional departures (including Linden's home) to be found in future episodes. The show took on an almost live theatre-like quality, with characters entering and exiting that primary set. As such, the show attracted guests with strong theatre backgrounds. (Linden was a Broadway vet and had won a Tony only a few years prior for the practically forgotten period musical, The Rothschilds. His costar? Jill Clayburgh.)

As the first episode was a reworked version of the pilot - and featured more of Barrie and Linden at home than would ever be seen again - the second episode is the one that sets the tone for what viewers could expect for future installments. This episode features the first appearance of what would become a recurring character over the years and one of TV's earliest examples of a clearly defined (and labeled) homosexual character. Jack De Leon (a Broadway performer in The Most Happy Fella) portrayed Marty Morrison in a highly stereotypical, but undeniably hilarious, way. The lines are funny anyway, but his pithy, condescending delivery sends them across even better.

Morrison had an extensive career as a voice actor in animated cartoons. Apart from playing Johnny Storm/The Human Torch in the 1960s rendition of Fantastic Four, his chief contribution was supplying countless other voices for many shows, demonstrating considerable vocal versatility and keeping him in demand. He also popped up in person on various shows from Laverne & Shirley to The Fall Guy and others. His subsequent appearances (with a husband in tow) were less outrageous than this first appearance following the head writer's meeting with gay activist leaders, but it was still important that he was there in the mid-1970s.

Also appearing in this one is Rod Perry, who had been in the pilot, but was ultimately displaced from the show in favor of Ron Glass. Perry, who soon after scored a regular role on the hit show S.W.A.T., was a vice cop whose gimmick was originally to be that he was often seen in (horrible) drag. He does don drag at the end of this, his only regular episode. S.W.A.T., despite being a hit, was cancelled due to reactions over its on-screen violence. One can only imagine what the detractors in 1976 would have to say about today's fare...
Another actor at the dawn of his career was Ray Sharkey, who plays a hold-up man placed under arrest. Sharkey had one movie (The Lords of Flatbush, 1974) and a few TV appearances (notably a few on Kojak) under his belt and would appear again on Barney Miller in its second season. He would later make his mark in movies and in hard-hitting television projects. An Off-Broadway actor, he'd come to Los Angeles with his friend, boxer-turned-actor Chu Chu Malave, who had played a gun-toting drug addict in both Barney Miller pilots. Sharkey, who had developed a heroin addition for much of his adult life, died of AIDS at only age forty.
Episode five contained several notable faces as it concerned a rounding up of local prostitutes. Running the ring of hookers was Audrey Christie, an indispensable character actress who could be found in Splendor in the Grass (1961) as Natalie Wood's mother and Mame (1974) as the snooty Mrs. Upson, among many other parts in film and on TV.

Naomi Stevens played one of the ladies' disap- pointed mothers. Stevens portrayed countless mothers, neighbors, secretaries and so on. She was in Valley of the Dolls (1967) as the secretary who acquaints Barbara Parkins with the office she's hired into. Though Ms. Stevens retired in the late-1980s, she's still alive today at ninety-one.

Lavelle Roby played one of the prostitutes. She was in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) along with a plethora of things ranging from Blaxploitatin like Black Gunn (1972) to Rocky (1975) and still works today. He character reappeared once on Miller a couple of years later. Rosanna DeSoto had done some TV and went on to scads more, along with some movies like Cannery Row (1982), La Bamba (1987) and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991.)

The showcased lady of the evening, though, was Nancy Dussault, who had been in three Broadway musicals and was a supporting player on The New Dick Van Dyke Show. She would proceed to a hit sitcom of her own opposite Ted Knight called Too Close for Comfort in the 1980s. Dussault is now eighty-one and entered semi-retirement around the time of the millennium.
A rare episode that took place largely outside the 12th precinct head- quarters was one involving a stake-out. The apartment building in which Linden and his men were stationed as part of an observation was run by a couple who are only momentarily shown together, though they're each famous in their own right. Vic Tayback, who would later costar on over 200 episodes of Alice, and Brett Somers, who was already appearing on Match Game and would do so for years to come.

Marjorie Bennett, an actress who worked in silent films as early as 1917 (!), also appeared as a crafty shoplifter. Australian Bennett, though there was a gap in her on-screen resume from about 1918 to 1946, worked in countless TV and movie projects and was perfect at portraying slightly dotty, amusing maids, matrons and assorted old ladies. She returned to Barney Miller for another role in 1980, which proved to be her last. She died in 1982 at age eighty-six.

Episode eight introduced what was still a relatively newfangled idea at the time, a female police detective. (The station office ONLY HAS a Men's restroom!) Sue Ann Langdon had portrayed a rookie cop on Police Story in 1974 and Angie Dickinson's Police Woman began airing in 1975, but it was still a fairly unique concept. Thus, when detective Linda Lavin is assigned to the precinct, the other male members scarcely know how to deal with it and basically expect her to hold down the fort. (For the record, this is the sole episode of Barney Miller that costar Max Gail missed appearing in. He and Lavin would later costar - with Kristy McNichol - in the TV-movie Like Mom, Like Me.)
Lavin had appeared in no less than eight Broadway musicals and comedies to this point along with the occasional TV guest role on shows like Rhoda and Harry O. Her character made a total of five appearances over the course of about two years and might have become a regular but for the fact that she was offered her own sitcom, Alice, which proved to be immensely popular. Since that show's demise in 1985, she has continued to work steadily on television, on Broadway and in the occasional movie as well. She is now eighty.

The next episode featured former Dead End Kid/Bowery Boy Gabriel Dell as a cross-dresser, arrested for his habit. (Yes, times have changed...!) Dell is unrecognizable in his dress and wig, though I am not familiar enough with him to have known him otherwise anyway even though he had a featured role in the previous year's Earthquake (1974), a personal favorite. In that film, he sported long shaggy hair and a mustache. (He also showed up in heavy makeup/costuming as Mordru in Legends of the Superheroes, a 1979 special - followed by a comedic roast - that I was agog over as a kid.)
More striking is the short, but sassy, appearance of one Marla Gibbs as the victim of a mugging. She'd only done a few small movie roles prior to this, but in short order would be hired as the wisecracking maid Florence on The Jeffersons (for more than 200 episodes) and then follow that with 227 (in which she acted for 115 episodes.) Gibbs is as busy as ever today in a variety of TV and film projects at age eighty-six.

Fans of The Golden Girls will recognize 10th episode guest Herb Edelman as Bea Arthur's likably schmucky ex-husband Stan. Edelman, like many other guests, had been in three Broadway plays prior to this. Here, he plays a mafia informant who's being targeted for death whose presence leads to the detectives nearly being poisoned to death! Also in this episode, Jack DeLeon makes a second appearance.
The following episode features more Broadway talent. Roscoe Lee Browne, by then a veteran of six plays on The Great White Way, plays a convict with a penchant for making escapes, even from maximum security installations. The distinctively-voiced Browne led an extensive career in movies and on TV, working right up to his death from cancer at age eighty-four.
In this same installment, we meet a man who attaches wings to his arms and attempts to fly off the top of buildings. This kook is played by Leonard Frey, another Broadway performer famous for his work in Fiddler on the Roof (in a few parts) as well as the 1971 movie as Motel the tailor, which earned him an Oscar nomination. (The award went to Ben Johnson for The Last Picture Show.) The year prior to that he costarred in The Boys in the Band, a searing dark comedy about a group of gay friends. Sadly, Frey was taken by AIDS at age forty-nine, while his career was still active.
A hot-shot new cop shows up in the next episode, meant to suggest Al Pacino's Serpico (1973.) Played by Michael Lembeck, he claims to have his hair long and with a full beard in order to disguise his youth, but Linden isn't having it in his generally straight-laced precinct. So off it comes. Lembeck played a variety of handsome young gents on TV and worked regularly on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and, later, One Day at a Time, after this. He also did an occasional film, but at the dawn of the 1990s switched to directing, at which he's proven to be quite successful. (He won an Emmy for directing an episode of Friends.) He'll be turning seventy in June.
Also popping up in this one is Henry Beckman. He had played Linden's uncle in the very first pilot before the character was written out for the series. Another Broadway actor (in the 1950s), he had a more than fifty-year career on TV in countless projects, one highlight being his role as Barbara Parkins' unstable father on Peyton Place. He passed away of heart failure at age eighty-six.

A very early appearance (his third credit) of actor Charles Fleischer can be found here, too. A stand-up comedian, he also acted in many projects and is perhaps best known as the voice of the title role (and others) in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988.) Now sixty-seven, his career is still active. (By the way, the sign in the holding cell reads "Don't Spit on the Floor" even though it looks like it might say otherwise in this pic! LOL)

In the second to last episode of the season, Linden's wife Barrie makes a citizen's arrest of a robber. It turns out to be Todd Bridges, then nine, in his screen debut. He would later score a considerable hit with Diff'rent Strokes opposite the diminutive Gary Coleman. That show began three years after this and he appeared in 169 episodes. 
Although he never regained the level of fame he enjoyed during the run of that series, and went through a highly-troubled period in his twenties, he's remained remarkably active to date in this project or that and is now fifty-two.

I have yet to see any further episodes of Barney Miller, but I was surprised to learn that in later seasons, the show featured as a recurring character a gay cop, something that was depicted as nearly impossible in the second episode. While poking fun at certain things regarding alternative lifestyles, the show is nonetheless notable for Linden's character's fair treatment of all involved, a voice of reason and even acceptance on a show that left the airwaves in May of 1982. If it wasn't always 100% sensitive, it was at least progressive.

I was recently informed by one of my readers of a monumental project he'd been working on for years, an extensive, comprehensive listing of all the gay and gender-bending characters' appearances on television from the dawn of TV onward. It's an interesting read (even though I haven't been able to completely finish it myself!) Every time I try to think of an example from the early days that he may have missed, I go to look for it and there it is. I encourage you to give it a look if you're interested!

Oh, one last thing. If you happen to fall into the category of a Max Gail admirer, I tracked down a couple of projects he did with his shirt off. (I do aim to please...!) Here he is in that TV-movie with Lavin, Like Mom, Like Me.

And here he is in a 1976 episode of The Streets of San Francisco as a man suspected of rape and murder being sheltered by his mother.
And to "end" things, his appearance in the 1980 TV-movie The Aliens are Coming. (A few of his fans may be, too! LOL)  Till next time...

9 comments:

Alan Scott said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who had a crush on Max Gail back then. Such a loveable goof ball. There is an episode where he goes out in drag (undercover) with a female cop to find a serial rapist. Gail is the one who gets attacked and his entrance into the precinct just after the attack is hysterical! I hope you see that one soon.

Gingerguy said...

If your aim was to please, consider it mission accomplished Poseidon. I have always loved Max Gail, something about his cro magnon character and the hot body was always compelling to me.
I also must admit to a similar feeling about glamour and television shows. I remember being instantly turned off by Sanford and Son because they worked in a junkyard and had a messy house. I also thrilled to Charlie's Angels and the like because of costumes and sets.
Ray Sharkey was always a tough guy, I remember him most from the Idolmaker, and sad he died so young.
All the episodes I remember of Barney Miller were about hookers or locked up gay people. And dry line readings by Jack Soo. There was a lot of straight from Broadway casting in tv then. It probably helped the gritty story lines that people had acting chops. Leonard Frey was amazing. The Boys In The Band is coming back to Broadway and Zachary Quinto is playing the part the Arnold part.
Todd Bridges in jail seems like foreshadowing. What a cute kid he was.
I had that crazy Legends of the Superheroes/roast. I wonder what I did with that? lol. Very interesting post and a Who's Who of guest stars

Forever1267 said...

"Barney Miller" was too adult for pre-teen me, but I did notice beefy Max Gail during those days.

Linda Lavin can currently be seen on "9JKL" with that nice, cute Jewish boy with a lovely chest Mark Feuerstein. It's a cute CBS sitcom.

That link that Matthew Rettenmund has written is exhaustive and amazing. Must read stuff. How times have changed!

Derek said...

Thank you for this. I had a huge crush on Hal Linden in the 70s when this was on the air. I was in high school at the time. I also loved Max Gail but Hal's mustache...It was also fun recalling all the actors who made appearances on the show.

Poseidon3 said...

Hello friends!

Alan, I can't deny I find the Max Gail of this era attractive (and there's a movie or show out there somewhere I haven't been able to locate yet in which he swims out in the ocean in a black speedo!), though as he got older and grew his hair long and so on, my interest dwindles. I'd love to see that episode of BM you mentioned, though!

Gingerguy, back on December 7th, I watched a lengthy miniseries called "Pearl" - a sort of "From Here to Eternity" rip-off and Max Gail had a featured role, but, sadly, kept his clothes firmly attached. I have watched a few "Sanford & Son" while on the treadmill over the last few months and I do find it amusing, mostly anything to do with LaWanda Page, but oh my god would I run from it back in the day. I didn't know about the revival of Boys in the Band. You're always in the know, particularly about NYC! Thanks!

Forever1267, glad you like the link. I can't imagine the research, not to mention organization, it took.

Derek, thanks for your comments and recollections. I don't know why Hal didn't really do it for me then or now. In one of these season one eps he appears in only a towel, a rare instance of skin on the show. It was hard to capture because he was in perpetual motion, but it will be part of my next men in towels post. ;-)

F. Nomen said...

In addition to Marty and his partner Daryl reappering periodically, the gay officer you mention, Officer Zatelli, was the subject of American TV’s first gay story arc which culminated in his coming out in the squad room. Series creator Danny Arnold worked with the National Gay Task Force (now NGLTF) on the characters and stories. Other gay-related stories involved a gay Russian musician seeking asylum, Daryl arrested for kidnapping his child from a previous marriage and Wojo being accused of molesting a male arrestee.

Vince Frank C said...

Max Gail is currently appearing on General Hospital as father of Maurice Bernard's character Sonny.

Cantara Christopher said...

Max Gail can also be seen in an episode of Mad Men, season 7, episode 13 "The Milk and Honey Route". I loved that Wojo could speak Polish pretty well.

Poseidon3 said...

Thanks for the info and further background F. Nomen! Who knew that "Barney Miller" of all shows was doing its part to help with acceptance and visibility...?! Good to know.

Vince Frank, again, thanks for the further information on Gail, who clearly has quite a following (of which I hope he's aware.)

Thanks, Cantara. He's still making his mark in current shows. :-)